JAKARTA: Indonesia has begun search and rescue operations for stranded migrant boats carrying Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, an official said on Sunday, after it dropped a hardline policy of refusing them sanctuary.
Jakarta sparked international outrage by turning away vessels filled with desperate migrants, among thousands stranded at sea since a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking in early May threw the illicit trade into chaos.
Along with neighboring Malaysia, the government changed approach on Wednesday with an announcement that they would take in boat people provided they could be resettled or repatriated within a year.
While Indonesian fisherman have helped hundreds of stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshis to shore, so far there has been no official rescue effort from Jakarta.
But four naval ships, a patrol aircraft, and two pontoons for migrants to disembark, have now been deployed in a search that started on Friday evening, military spokesman Fuad Basya told Agence France-Presse.
“We have officially received an order from President [Joko Widodo] to carry out search and rescue operations, whether in Indonesian territory or international waters,” he said.
“We will save the migrants and take them to shore,” he said, adding that as of late Saturday, no new boats had been sighted.
In his first public comments on the crisis since it started, Widodo on Saturday said that taking in the migrants was a “good solution” and that regional nations were acting out of a sense of humanity.
But on Sunday, he reportedly indicated Jakarta may not be able to foot the bill for housing thousands of destitute people.
“We’re counting and making calculations on the costs involved,” he was quoted as saying on Detikcom news website. “We still need international support on how this would be managed.”
The Malaysian government announced on Thursday its navy and coastguard would be mobilized for search operations but so far it has not reported any rescues.
Southeast Asia’s exodus of boat people has been fanned by persecution and poverty. Most making the perilous journey are Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where they are not recognized as citizens.